Michigan women’s soccer coach Greg Ryan doesn’t want his defense to look like Swiss cheese this season. That’s why, in his first season as head coach, Ryan has installed a zone defense, replacing the man-to-man style previous Michigan teams employed.

“When they just chased players all over the field, what happens is there are big holes in your defense,” Ryan said. “A team that’s attacking you has lots of holes they can just pass the ball through, run through, dribble through. Our girls are staying in a very, very good compact shape as a group, so that we don’t have what we call it in soccer the ‘Swiss cheese’ defense.”

In a zone defense, each position group (defenders, midfielders and forwards) moves as a unit. The Wolverines play a tight, centralized zone to eliminate gaps between defenders.

They adjust to the oncoming offense by shifting position with the ball movement and dropping back in the zone when the other team applies more pressure. This style requires strong communication between players and better position awareness.

“We talk a lot more; we drop in for each other; we cover for each other,” sophomore defender Amanda Bowery. “We’re a whole line defending. You can’t just beat one of us. You’ll have to beat all five of us to score.”

When the defense reclaims possession and begins down the field, the outside defenders are well-situated to move up and join the attack.
In last week’s 1-0 shutout victory over Miami (Ohio), freshman Clare Stachel took a pass from senior captain Katie Miller in the Michigan zone. Being an outside defender, Stachel was able to shoot up the right side of the field and dribble around three Miami defenders before connecting with an assist for the Michigan goal.

“We’ve encouraged our defenders to go forward and attack,” Ryan said. “Part of good attacking is being in a good shape defensively, so, when you get the ball, you’re in a good place to attack.”

For nearly 10 years, Ryan’s teams have run a zone defense, including the U.S. National Team, which he coached, from 2005-2007. Several top collegiate teams run a similar defense, including perennial powerhouse North Carolina.

“If you look at men’s professional soccer in Europe or in the U.S. or anywhere, you would see that this type of defending is the direction soccer is moving in,” Ryan said.

But though the zone defense has become popular in major soccer leagues, this season was the first time many Wolverines were exposed to the defensive style.

“There are a lot of youth players and youth clubs who don’t come into the college ranks with this type of a background, because in some ways, it’s easier to teach man-to-man than it is to teach zone,” Ryan said. “So this is just something we have to teach them.”

A former defender himself, Ryan participates in a defensive drill that mimics the same shifting with the ball as Michigan sees in games. He serves as the opponent, and the defense must move according to his play.

In the first game using the zone defense on Aug. 22, Michigan dropped a contest to then-No. 5 Notre Dame, 7-0, but Ryan said he thinks the result would be different if the Wolverines played the same Fighting Irish team today.

“It’s not something that’s going to be perfect this year,” Ryan said. “It takes some time to really get a feel for it. But they’ve improved so much already. I’m very optimistic. They’re getting it faster than I would have anticipated at this point.”

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